What the Battle for Fallujah tells us about Iraq

The Iraqi government has begun a long awaited offensive to liberate the city of Fallujah from ISIS. Victory in Fallujah is important both symbolically and strategically. It was the first city seized by ISIS in either Iraq or Syria, and lies just 30 miles from Baghdad. But regardless of the outcome of the coming battle, the offensive against Fallujah gives us great insight into the current state of Iraq and the overall fight against ISIS.

For starters, it tells us that, despite a recent string of victories, the Iraqi military is in poor shape. There are an estimated 20-30,000 troops involved in the operation, facing around 400-600 ISIS fighters. (Note: the BBC source only includes Iraqi police units and does not include the thousands or Iraqi soldiers involved. That said, the figure for the number of police soldiers seems somewhat high but it is probably safe to say that altogether, there are 20-30 thousand soldiers involved). So around 25,000 Iraqi soldiers are facing around 500 ISIS fighters. The numerical odds are 50 to 1. This is before we take into account the Iraqi military’s overwhelming superiority in artillery, armored vehicles, air support, and battlefield intelligence. But despite the truly massive disparity in capabilities deployed, the Battle for Fallujah is still estimated to take weeks of hard fighting and cause heavy causalities for the Iraqi military. Any military that needs such an advantage in capability to achieve victory is clearly not in good shape. The Iraqi military continues to suffer from low morale, poor cohesion, and poor combat skill. In order to continue to liberate and hold ground the Iraqi military must transform itself into a force capable of achieving victory with much slimmer odds. Otherwise, if it continues to need such odds to defeat ISIS in battle, it will soon find itself stretched quite thin.

The second important lesson to be learned from the Battle for Fallujah (a lesson that can also be learned elsewhere but is highlighted by the current offensive) is that Iraq will continue to be unstable as long as the gulf between Shias and Sunnis remains. Thousands of Shiite militiamen are partaking in the Fallujah offensive, but are reportedly being held back from entering the city itself for fear of sectarian violence. As the Shiite militias are currently among the most capable units of the Iraqi security forces, this represents a major obstacle in the fight against ISIS. The Iraqi military desperately needs the numbers and capabilities the Shia militias offer to drive ISIS out of the country. Without the Shia militias it is unlikely that the Iraqi military will be able to liberate Mosul. But so long as the Shia militias cannot be trusted to restrain themselves from sectarian bloodletting (and so long as the Sunni populace cannot be trusted to not actively resist the Shia militias) the Shia militias must be held back. The Shia militias must be welcomed as liberators, and not as occupiers, by the Sunni population and this requires that the militias see themselves as liberators not conquerors.

The Iraqi military is still in poor shape will continue to struggle to take and hold ground unless serious changes are made. Morale and unit cohesion are the most serious troubles for the Iraqi armed forces. As it stands the Iraqi military relies on overwhelming superiority in numbers to achieve victory. But as the frontline moves further into the Sunni heartland, the Shia militias will see less and less combat putting further strain on an already stretched Iraqi military. More must be done to facilitate reconciliation between the Shia and Sunni communities of Iraq, and to convince them to fight together as Iraqis and not as separate Shia and Sunni militias. Until Iraq comes together as a nation, peace will remain difficult to find.